Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Signs & Symptoms

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that is triggered when an individual witnesses or experiences an extremely terrifying event. This serious condition is a lasting result of traumatic events that cause an individual to develop feelings of intense fear, helplessness, and/or extreme anxiety. Such events that can elicit the onset of PTSD include natural disasters, car accidents, being the victim of abuse or neglect, and witnessing a crime. However, any event that produces extreme distress and feelings of helplessness can potentially result in the development of posttraumatic stress disorder. While the effects of PTSD can negatively impact a child or adolescent’s life, treatment can help them regain a sense of control over his or her life and overcome this distressing disorder.

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Statistics

PTSD affects many children and adolescents, with research estimating that 3%-15% of female youth and 1%-6% of male youth experience the onset of PTSD symptoms following exposure to trauma. However, there continues to be debate on the accuracy of these percentages due to the fact that many young people do not receive appropriate treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder.

Causes and Risk Factors for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

The onset of posttraumatic stress disorder occurs when an individual experiences a traumatic event that involved physical harm or the threat of physical harm. However, experts still are not sure why some individuals go on to develop this disorder while others who experience a similar traumatic event do not. Yet, research has been able to identify a number of causes and risk factors that will make an individual more susceptible to developing this illness. These include:

Genetic: Many researchers have determined that the development of PTSD has a strong genetic component and that those with first degree relatives who have suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder or other anxiety disorders are at an increased risk for developing this condition following a traumatic event. Recently, focus has been placed on studying genes that play a role in creating fear memories.

Environmental: The environment that a child or adolescent is immersed in can greatly impact his or her chances for developing PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event. For example, not having a proper support system available to them or having the lack of appropriate coping skills could make young people more susceptible to the development of PTSD.

Risk Factors:

  • Experiencing intense, long-lasting trauma
  • Experiencing trauma early in life
  • Inherited aspects of a individual’s personality
  • Lacking healthy coping skills
  • Lacking a strong support network
  • Being female
  • Having a family history of mental health conditions, especially anxiety disorders
  • Suffering from a preexisting mental illness

Signs and Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

The symptoms associated with posttraumatic stress disorder tend to develop within three months of experiencing a traumatic event but, in some cases, they may not appear until years later. Additionally, symptoms will vary depending on the length of the trauma experienced, the support system available to the individual, and the coping skills the individual possesses. Furthermore, PTSD symptoms are usually grouped into three different categories, including re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance symptoms, and hyperarousal symptoms. The symptoms included in each category are laid out in more detail below:

Re-experiencing symptoms:

  • Recurrent, disturbing nightmares
  • Experiencing physical symptoms, such as labored breathing, excessive sweating, or an increase in heart rate
  • Flashbacks that make the person feel as though the trauma is happening again
  • Intrusive memories about the trauma

Avoidance symptoms:

  • Feeling hopeless about the future
  • Loss of interest in things that one used to enjoy
  • Avoiding people, places, and/or situations that remind the person of the trauma
  • Unable to remember certain details about the trauma
  • Feelings of detachment and isolation from family or friends

Hyperarousal symptoms:

  • Angry outbursts
  • Trouble falling and/or staying asleep
  • Problems relating to others
  • Irritability
  • Constantly feeling on edge or concerned that something bad is going to happen
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Excessive irritability

It is also not uncommon for children with PTSD to experience delayed development in certain areas, such as potty training, motor skills, and language development.

If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Having PTSD can disrupt a child and adolescent’s whole life, creating problems at school and within relationships among peers, and potentially even leading to the development of various health complications. If left untreated, these effects can get worse and prevent a child or adolescent from enjoying everyday life. Some of these negative complications include:

  • Development of depression and anxiety
  • Problems with drugs and/or alcohol
  • Decline in academic performance
  • Academic failure
  • Dwindling of interpersonal relationships
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Onset of self-harming behaviors
  • Suicidal ideation and behaviors
  • Chronic pain

Co-Occurring Disorders

Approximately 80% of individuals who are suffering from PTSD also meet clinical diagnostic criteria for another mental health condition. The following are examples of some of the most commonly cited disorders and conditions known to co-occur alongside posttraumatic stress disorder:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Substance use disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
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